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Harbour Town Design Dream

The Golf Course is a milestone in Golf Course design writes Dermot Gilleece

Posted Apr 25, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece

harbour town

When Graeme McDowell captured the RBC Heritage last weekend, he joined a very fortunate group of players to have their skills rewarded on this remarkable piece of golfing terrain.  It was only during a recent chat with 80-year-old American golf-course designer, Ron Kirby, that I was made to realise the full impact Harbour Town has had on the game’s architecture.

Four strokes behind leader Charley Hoffman after 54 holes, McDowell needed Sunday to present a severe examination of mind and body if he was to have a chance of winning.  Winds of 30mph around this tree-lined layout of tight greens and serpentine fairways, fitted the bill just nicely.  It meant that even with Hoffman on 11 under par, McDowell sensed before he teed-off that nine under might be the winning figure.

So it proved to be, albeit after a one-hole play-off with Webb Simpson who had beaten the Irishman into second place in the US Open at the Olympic Club, last June.

Leaders in their craft will acknowledge that only fools or liars would claim to be impervious to the influences of illustrious predecessors. Kirby belongs to neither group.  So it is that the man responsible for completing the final design stage of The Old Head in south-west Ireland, readily acknowledges the great names and great places which have shaped his skills.

He talked passionately about Robert Trent Jones Snr and Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus.  And he talked about Harbour Town which, in his opinion, represents the most significant development in golf-course architecture as we now know it. As he observed: "It opened the door to individuality at a time when everyone seemed to be slavishly copying Jones.  If there's an oak tree in the way, so what. Make them play over it, or bump and run a shot underneath it."

Kirby happens to be very much a traditionalist in his love of the royal and ancient game. Born in Beverley, Massachusetts where his father was a golf professional, he won a Ouimet Caddies' Scholarship and went to the University of Massachusetts where they had a course in agronomy.  From there he got a greenkeeper's job in Weston, Massachusetts and during the snowbound, winter months, would go to Florida where he worked for a variety of golf architects, gaining valuable experience all the while.

During seven years with the Trent Jones organisation, he worked on the classic Old Sotogrande on Spain’s Costa del Sol, and on Las Brisas a little ways along the coast. By 1986, however, it became clear to him that Nicklaus was getting all the top contracts and the fattest fees.  And as an admirer of the Bear's work, he was happy to join his team as senior designer with involvement in exclusively European projects.  There was The National in Paris, the Monarchs at Gleneagles, London Golf Club and Mount Juliet, which was widely regarded as the flagship of the Bear's European operations.  

Then, as yet another example of the tiny village which golfers inhabit, he met up with Joe Carr, a long-time friend of Nicklaus's and President of Mount Juliet. "It was through Joe and his son Roddy that I first got to hear about The Old Head, though they simply described it at the time as a spectacular headland near Cork," he recalled.  

After assessing the work that had already been done there, Kirby was figuring ways of achieving the sort of playability that would be crucial on such an exposed site.  With Carr's words "this won't work", ringing in his ears, he drew on the vast experience he had acquired with Jones, Dye, Player and Nicklaus to try and bring to reality what the once great amateur player was trying to imagine.

Ultimately, he was destined to be guided by the creative genius of Dye, the maverick who broke from the towering shadow cast by Trent Jones. He remembered how Dye had crossed the Atlantic to study classic Scottish links courses such as Prestwick, Troon and Dornoch. And how he had applied brave, new thinking to the design of Harbour Town, which would become the venue for the Heritage Classic in 1969, when Arnold Palmer had his first tournament win in 14 months.

The course had only 56 bunkers, eight of which were off the fairways and all lay absolutely flat, making it virtually impossible to get a buried lie.  Meanwhile, Dye and his consultant, Nicklaus, went to extraordinary pains to leave trees where they would come into play.  

It would be nice to think that today’s professionals respect the nature of the puzzle which was created for them more than 40 years ago.  McDowell did. But in his wake, there were quite a few who paid a heavy price for ignoring the glorious subtleties of Harbour Town.

- Dermot Gilleece

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